“Sorry, I am not that kind of player,” says Cristiano Ronaldo at one point during his interview with Piers Morgan. He says it with pride and his admirers will point to it as evidence of his elite mentality. But it cuts to the crux of his inability to adapt to his new reality.
They say that most players are the first to know when their time is up. Ronaldo, as has so often been the case throughout his extraordinary career, is not most players. His curse is that the mentality that drove him to the top of his sport is the same mentality that is making his descent much uglier than it needs to be.
If anyone expected this explosive but ultimately excruciating interview to include revelations about Erik ten Hag’s shocking treatment of a 37-year-old man in the workplace then they would surely have been disappointed as they waited in vain for evidence.
The coach charged with setting Manchester United on a new path did not degrade or bully Ronaldo. He named him as captain in what proved to be his final appearance for the club. Ten Hag’s crime was to have, on occasion, not picked Ronaldo in his team.
That is the incendiary act that led him to refuse to come off the bench against Tottenham. Ronaldo apologised to his team-mates for that. Sort of. “I apologised, but in the same way, I am not regretting the decision to not come on.” Sorry, not sorry.
“The coach didn’t have respect for me,” he adds.
Ronaldo was not fully fit at the start of the season. Even he seems to accept that he could not stroll into the side then. He played in the 4-0 beating at Brentford, was left out of the next four that United won, only to return for the home defeat to Real Sociedad.
The Tottenham game for which he was benched preceded two games inside a week that Ronaldo had started. Ninety minutes in the narrow win over Omonia Nicosia at Old Trafford. Seventy-two more minutes in the stadium in the stalemate with Newcastle United.
It is worth remembering because this is not the story of a player who had been frozen out approaching his 38th birthday. His final appearance, that awful 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, was his ninth start in 13 games. Ten Hag might have played him too much.
None of which is to say Ronaldo was of no use to Manchester United. His goal against Everton showed what he can still do. That explains why Ten Hag tried to accommodate him. The player was indulged more than he now appears to accept.
“I do not want to be cocky and say that I am the same as when I was 20. Of course, not,” says Ronaldo. He goes on to suggest that retirement at the age of 40 is the plan. It is the closest he comes to an acknowledgement that time is an opponent he cannot beat.
“But I adapt and I am smart to know my strength, what I am good at. And I am still playing at a high level. I score goals and I will continue to score goals – if my mind is clear and happy and if the people surrounding me, they are helping me to be a successful player.”
He is right in that it is still possible to construct a team around Ronaldo that maximises his output. Maybe Manchester United were not doing that. The problem is that as his abilities decline and the end nears, there was less reason than ever for Ten Hag to do so.
Ronaldo now looks to his time at Real Madrid as the benchmark for how he would like to be treated, but does not appear to have made the connection that he was treated that way because he was at his peak. That would not have gone on indefinitely.
He was named as a substitute eight times during his nine seasons in La Liga – as many times as Ten Hag asked him to perform that duty in half a season at Manchester United. During Ronaldo’s last five La Liga seasons as a Real Madrid player, he was not on the bench once.
No wonder this is all so alien to him. “Do not tell me that the top players, the guys who want everything, the key players, will play three minutes,” he says of the request for him to come on late in the game during that defeat of Tottenham. “Come on, this is unacceptable.”
Perhaps he is right. United supporters have seen Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes accept their place back within the ranks but Ronaldo is different. Maybe it is for the best that Eric Cantona never had to adjust. He was the main man from his first day there until his last.
That tends to be the way of it with the true greats. Pele went to the States. Johan Cruyff stormed to Feyenoord when he sensed Ajax were not bending to his will. Diego Maradona consumed clubs. Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain is not without its tensions.
There is no real precedent for this in the Premier League, no clue what it might look like when an all-time icon of the game is asked to accept a diminished role before he is ready. Maybe this unedifying spectacle is precisely what such a situation looks like.
For United, it has meant more awkward headlines at a time when they might have hoped the worst was behind them. Alejandro Garnacho’s big moment swallowed up. The spotlight instead put back on the years of failure that have led them to this mess.
Ronaldo has a point when questioning Ralf Rangnick’s appointment and his claim that United no longer lead the way in infrastructure is undeniable even as they begin to correct that failing. Supporters will welcome that perceived criticism of the owners.
But as he whined, unchallenged by the sycophantic Morgan, the sense was of a man able to diagnose every problem but one.
Maybe there was another world in which Ronaldo might have embraced his role in changing the culture, becoming a beacon of the better times while striving to restore them. Maybe Ten Hag could have counted on his senior player to set those standards.
But that would have required more than just unchecked ambition and drive, it would have demanded some humility and self-awareness. The message that Ronaldo sent to his manager and the rest of the world was clear. Sorry, I am not that kind of player.